Sunday, July 11, 2010

Messiah of Evil (1973)

The Movie: Arletty (Mariana Hill) travels to the remote seaside town of Pointe Dune. Her father, an artist of some renown, moved out there so that he could be alone to paint. However, his letters have started to become erratic and unbalanced, so she is naturally worried about him.

The people of Pointe Dune are unhelpful, unfriendly, and somewhat creepy. Arletty eventually finds another group of outsiders: the rich degenerate Thom (Michael Greer) and his two “traveling companions;” the sultry former model Laura (Anitra Ford, a model on the game show the Price Is Right as well as starring in Invasion of the Bee Girls and the Big Bird Cage), and the jailbait Tony (Joy Bang). Thom came to Pointe Dune to learn the local legends, and they, too, have been seeking out Arletty’s father.

Unfortunately, emotions start to come to a head as soon as Arletty enters the picture. As Laura puts it “Thom likes to collect things,” and it’s no secret that he wants Arletty as another traveling companion. However, the emotional turmoil is the least of their worries. Piecing together clues from Arletty’s father’s journal and the accounts of the local drunk reveal a really dark legend about the last time the moon turned blood red.

The legend talks about unthinkable depravities, and an evil force that takes people over and turns them into something less than human. Then there is the Dark Stranger, a mysterious former preacher who was with the Donner Party when he discovered faith in another, darker Power. The Dark Stranger was last seen walking into the sea; but he promised to return a century later, to usher Pointe Dune’s curse upon the rest of the world.

The Review: Only about a year or two ago there was a wonderful little store on State Street in Boise. It sold used movies, mostly VHS, along with old videogame systems and games. I loved to go through the movies, where I often found obscure little gems. Probably my greatest discovery there was in one of those huge boxes VHS used to come in, and had the intriguing title Messiah of Evil.

Now, I had never heard anything about this picture before. The title interested me, so I grabbed it. However, I really didn’t know what to expect. To be honest, I was pretty sure that this movie would have a few fascinating, though far underutilized, ideas; and would be, at very best, passable. Which just goes to show that I can be wrong sometimes.

What can I say? Messiah of Evil is a true artistic masterpiece of a horror movie. The people who put it together knew exactly what they were doing and how they were going to do it. Considering that said makers, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, were the screenwriters for American Graffiti (not to mention that Huyck’s career ended when he wrote and directed Howard the Duck), the craftsmanship and knowhow that went into creating such a creepy and haunting piece is just breathtaking.

The main issue with creating a truly effective horror story, whatever the medium you use, is successfully creating and maintaining that atmosphere of tension. Messiah of Evil is set up specifically, in every detail, to make you uneasy. Lights, camera shots, blocking, mirrors, music, sound, two sets of voice-overs (one from Arletty and one from her father); all are used to amazing effect to make things off-kilter. In fact Pointe Dune, where we spend nearly all of the running time, seems less like an ordinary town and more like a waking nightmare.

One of the most effective settings is Arletty’s father’s house, where a good deal of the movie takes place. In almost every room are murals on the walls; mainly people, although there is one of some escalators that is extremely effective. From the beginning the people in the murals are kind of creepy, but they grow more so as strange events start happening. In many places they play as a kind of silent Greek chorus to what’s going on onscreen. Overall, they make the house, which is also the heroes’ shelter and base of operations, seem oppressive and threatening. I know, were it me using the room Arletty sets up as her bedroom, I’d never get a night’s sleep.

Another thing that caught my attention on my last viewing was the blood. I know, blood is par for the course in a horror movie these days; but what caught me was how sparely it was used. What’s more, the blood was so much more effective than it would have been had it come in rivers. A drop of blood falling from an eye, or a red hand hopelessly reaching for succor, is much more effective than the usual oceans of red stuff that is used.

Finally, the makers of this movie employed a masterful use of one of the oldest and most effective techniques for creating horror; warping the normal and familiar. The two most famous scenes in Messiah of Evil, the ones in the grocery store and movie theater, are extremely effectual because they are taking place somewhere that appears otherwise normal. The theater scene especially catches my imagination. Every time I see it I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to watch it in an actual movie theater. If nothing else, I probably would have been very suspicious of anybody sitting near me.

The characters are well made and acted. Admittedly, we don’t get to know them very well; we never get even a hint of what Arletty’s life was like pre-Pointe Dune, for example. Still, they come across as real human beings. Unlike most other horror movies, while they do stupid things; it never comes across as moronically suicidal, but how an actual human being would act under the same circumstances. The disconnect that comes from not knowing much about them pre-Pointe Dune actually helps reinforce the sense of a living nightmare.

None of the acting quality goes anywhere below adequate, although Greer comes across as the best of the primary characters. As Thom, Greer does a good job at showing both his bad (Thom is somewhat arrogant, lecherous and decadent) and his good (he really does try to do right by the others when he figures out what’s going on) points. Also, he apparently played the Dark Stranger as well. The Stranger’s face is always hidden by shadow, but he does bear a strong resemblance. There are all sorts of rumors about a cut scene showing that Thom and the Dark Stranger are actually the same being, or at least linked in some way.

I don’t know enough to comment one way or the other. I have no problem believing it to be so, however. Thom’s ultimate fate, and what comes immediately afterward, could argue for the affirmative. Whatever link there is between the two characters, if any, is left undisclosed; but it does add yet another layer of nightmarish ambiguity.

Probably the best of the cast are the extras who play the creepy townspeople. The most visible is Bennie Robinson, a black (as in African descended) albino who does a really disturbing performance with both his lines and his simple presence. However, I was also taken by the owner of the gallery Arletty visits at the very beginning of the movie. She’s a blind old woman who first feels Arletty’s face (“like a spider” Arletty’s voiceover describes the experience) and then snaps for her assistant. She then taps out Morse code on his hand, which he translates for Arletty. It is a very brief scene, but I still find it effectively off.

In conclusion, I will repeat what I said at the start of this review; Messiah of Evil is a true artistic masterpiece of a horror movie. It is one long waking nightmare with a decent cast, put together by people who knew exactly what they were doing. If you like horror; and I mean real horror, not the torture porn, bloody cartoons or condescendingly self-referential crap that passes for horror movies these days; you cannot miss this one.

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